After a couple years of legal battles and the anxiety that follows vandalism and bomb threats, members of the Muslim community in this town south of Nashville were able to pray for the first time in their own building on Aug. 10. In spite of the ballyhoo that opponents raised over Islam’s threat to the green and tranquil pastures of the homeland, and in spite of the stark suggestions of “Not Welcome” spray-painted on construction signs, and in spite of the torching of heavy equipment at the site (not to mention the recent and lamentable burning of a mosque in Missouri and attack on a Sikh gurdwara in Wisconsin), the opening passed incident-free.
Only one protester made an appearance. A lone opponent of the mosque—out of the many that a persistent legal offensive must have required—hovered on the periphery of the property, a man in an “I Love Jesus” hat and “Ten Commandments” shirt. When interrogated by the media, the man disclosed that he was representing Christians and that he wished the mosque wasn’t where it was.
I don’t expect he was representing Christians, as though his solitary vigil were explained as the consequence of a Christianity-wide election that would free all the other Christians to attend to other matters of spiritual import around the country, like staring down hippies on the Appalachian Trail or staying out of the rain to watch the Olympics. Vandalism and arson, notwithstanding—even the prolonged legal maneuvering, notwithstanding—the tranquility of opening day in Murfreesboro suggests that most Christians in this mostly Christian area don’t have much of a problem with the Islamic Center.
More curious, perhaps, is the report that the Muslim congregants invited the lone protestor inside, Jesus-hat and all. He declined. Or so goes the report.
It’s too bad. To the extent that this designated agent was on site to represent Christians and to “witness” to folks at the mosque, as he affirmed to the few who asked, he might have been much more effective inside, out of the rain, where all the people were. “Voice crying in the wilderness” does have a romantic, Biblical ambience, but “Mad Men” has shown all of us that if no one hears the ad fall, it doesn’t make a sound.
It’s not always possible to go inside. All of Mecca is closed to non-Muslims. Some Hindu temples are closed to non-Hindus. Mormon temples are closed, generally, to non-Mormons. And we know how secretive Scientology can be. There are good reasons for this limited exclusivity. We needn’t all, always, be fully privy to everything that everyone else is doing, especially considering our inclinations to revile what isn’t specifically tuned to our own, personal tastes. But such exclusivity does, inevitably, engender suspicion and the hostility that follows not knowing what “they” are “up to” in “there”.
So, given how often we’re outside the spiritual lives of our fellows, we should grab any chance to come inside. Whatever our religious disposition, and even if our disposition is “none”, a genuine invitation offers an opportunity to find out what “they” are “up to”. If it turns out that “they” (whichever “they”) are plotting the overthrow of the republic, all the better to discover the scheme sooner rather than later.
Much more often, the invitation gives us a chance to test the tastes and tolerances with which we’ve grown up. One needn’t be Sam-I-Am to appreciate that, at least in this country, our worst oppressor is our own ignorance. Stay out in the rain if you want. You’re a witness only to a fear that you’ll encounter something inside that’s so intriguing, so attractive, and so challenging that it will weasel its way past your ignorance and change you.
Happily, the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro opened comfortably as Ramadan was coming to an end. Most Christians clearly wish the best for the center. For the rest, there seems to be an invitation.
David Mason is an associate professor at Rhodes College in Memphis. He is the author of “Theatre and Religion on Krishna’s Stage” and “My Mormonism: a primer for non-Mormons and Mormons, alike.”